What's the difference between a prawn and a shrimp?

To most people the words ‘prawn’ and ‘shrimp’ mean something deliciously edible from the sea, probably with several legs and a hard shell. Australians think of prawns as large animals seen in the fish shop or on the menu in a restaurant. To them shrimps are smaller, the little pink things on the top of pizzas or maybe the small quick translucent creatures in rock pools.

But it isn’t quite that simple.

Prawns and shrimps are decapod Crustacea

Before deciding if prawns and shrimps are different, it has to be agreed that they are at least a bit similar. All prawns and shrimps are crustaceans, which are mostly aquatic animals with a hard skin (an exoskeleton) over a segmented body. Crustaceans belong to the subphylum Crustacea. They are like insects, which also have an exoskeleton, but differ in usually having many pairs of legs, instead of three pairs. The Decapoda, the group of Crustacea to which all prawns and shrimps (and lobsters and crabs) belong, have five pairs of legs on the main part of the body, plus five pairs of swimmerets on the abdomen or tail. It is the muscular tail that is edible. The classification of the Decapoda is very complex, even to a carcinologist (a scientist who studies Crustacea).

Prawns

The crustaceans that Australians call prawns belong to one decapod family, Penaeidae. Adults grow to about 200 mm long. Most penaeids sold in Australian fish shops are caught by trawlers in the tropics, in places like the Gulf of Carpentaria. Small fisheries for prawns exist in estuaries farther south. In Asia prawns are raised in coastal farms.

Penaeids live close to the seafloor in shallow water, burrowing in the mud during the day and moving only at night, when they can be caught by trawl nets. Prawns reproduce by dispersing their eggs freely into the water, where the young prawns hatch and swim into estuaries to grow up.

There are about 70 species of prawns in Australia, but only 10 are of economic significance: banana prawn, Endeavour prawn, tiger prawn, king prawn, red-spot prawn and school prawn are some of the names used for different species or groups of species.

Shrimps

Australian shrimps, on the other hand, are members of the Caridea, another group of Decapoda comprising many families. Most carideans are not edible, or they are too small (rarely more than 40 mm long) to be caught commercially in Australia. The only edible shrimps seen in Australia are imported in cans from Asia. Carideans produce eggs that are carried by the adult female, attached to the swimmerets under the tail.

Hinge-beak Shrimp

Hinge-beak Shrimp
Photographer: Michael Marmach. Source: Museum Victoria

A typical shrimp

A typical shrimp
Illustration: Jo Taylor. Source: Museum Victoria

Telling shrimps and prawns apart

An important difference between penaeids and carideans, besides the way they reproduce, is in the way the segments of the abdomen (tail) overlap. In penaeids (prawns) the sides of all segments overlap the segment behind, like roof tiles. In carideans (shrimps) the sides of the second segment overlap both the one before and the one after (see drawing). And in prawns the first three of the five pairs of legs on the body have small pincers, while in shrimps only two pairs are claw-like. In some shrimps one or other of the first two pairs of legs is bigger than the other whereas in prawns all the legs are similar lengths.

A shrimp in the USA is a prawn in Australia!

But that is not the end of the story. There is a large fishery for penaeids in the southern USA, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, and Americans call them shrimp! Paul Hogan made the word familiar in Australia with his expression ‘Throw another shrimp on the barbie!’

A typical prawn

A typical prawn
Illustration: Jo Taylor / Source: Museum Victoria

Further Reading

Grey, D. L., Dall, W. and Baker, A., 1983. A Guide to the Australian Penaeid Prawns. Northern Territory Government Printing Office: Darwin.

Poore, G.C.B. 2004. Marine decapod Crustacea of southern Australia. A guide to identification (with chapter on Stomatopoda by Shane Ahyong). CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.

Comments (29)

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faridnajam 1 May, 2009 22:44
the article has given quite a good explaination. i do appreciate it.
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jenny 9 November, 2009 02:35
yes i do think this is a very intresing and discribed article. very good.
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Warren Abbott 4 February, 2010 07:23
Good article, thanks very much.
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imran 26 July, 2010 05:34
great 1. it was a phenomenous article. it gave quite new things to understand. a great stand by urself. thanks a lot
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mariam 19 August, 2010 01:34
This has helped me with my project work in school.good one
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Dimzi 20 October, 2010 21:42
Nice to know the difference finally; American terminology causes sooo much confusion!
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hardeep sapra 23 December, 2010 01:22
Thanks a lot. This is first time i have got such clear and easy information about all this.
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Trivia buff 13 April, 2011 22:35
I've just returned from a trivia competition where they asked "What is the difference between a prawn and a shrimp, starting with the letter "G". The answer was gills - that prawns had lamellate gills and shrimps branching gills. Is this correct?
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Discovery Centre 17 April, 2011 10:02
Trivia Buff - although the distinction you mention is cited on the Wikipedia page about prawns, our information sheet here shows that there are more obvious features than gills to tell the difference between prawns and shrimp (using the Australian definitions of these). We're not saying that the answer at the trivia night was wrong, but it's not the most obvious difference considering the different reproduction methods and the physical appearances outlined here.
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Patrick 4 May, 2011 13:06
i have been catching prawns(banana) for many years but have never seen one with eggs attached but to find one riverine brackish water prawn (Udang Galah)with eggs nothing unfamiliar. Why?
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Discovery Centre 21 May, 2011 12:44
Hi Patrick, there is some confusion over the usage of the terms ‘prawns’ & ‘shrimp’. Though similar in appearance, prawns & shrimp belong to two different groups of crustaceans & have different reproductive strategies. ‘Banana Prawns’ are ‘true prawns’ which belong to the family Penaeidae, in the sub-order Dendrobranchiata. Female members of this family do not brood their eggs but shed them directly into the currents. ‘Freshwater prawns’ (Udang Galah) on the other hand are not a true prawn but a freshwater shrimp. They belong to the to the family Palaemonidae in the Infraorder Caridea.  Female Caridean shrimp brood their eggs in a brood chamber under the abdomen.
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Lyn Gray 5 November, 2011 14:37
This article solved a discussion between my American friends and I. I thought they just had the name wrong and that shrimps and prawns were the same. I was wrong. Mind you what they call shrimp is huge so who's right?
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Jude 14 November, 2011 22:41
Brilliant article. Great to know there is a real distinction, and the Americans are in error. *chuckle*
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LI 13 January, 2012 21:32
Now I'm hungry:)
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M. Fakih 25 September, 2012 19:11
Thank for your kind informations and Valow introduce As well i wishes to know the difference between the Male and female of the Shrimp or Prawn
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Helen 6 October, 2012 09:56
I love both prawns and shrimp.
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Teri 6 October, 2012 10:51
I love shrimp and Pawns. However, after the BP oil spill of 2010, I will Never, Never eat any type of seafood out of the Gulf of Mexico! There's still millions of gallons of oil left and the effects of the dispersant used to break up the oil is also extremely toxic. In the Gulf and scientists are finding "Eyeless shrimp, fish with oozing sores and other mutant creatures found in the Gulf of Mexico are raising concerns over lingering effects of the BP oil spill" (fox news). And I Always inquire whether at the grocery store or my server at a restaurant the Origination of their seafood. 
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Evelyn H 7 October, 2012 17:28
I'm only recently vegan, and this has me salivating.
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Sherrie 6 November, 2012 17:57
This was great and solved a lurking question.Prawns?Shrimps? My husband and I were confused as to why Paul Hogan called 'prawns' shrimps all those years ago. Yes, we WERE around at the time! We thought WE were the ones that didn't know what an Australian prawn was!!AAAAGH!!!! All in the name of 'tourism'
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kim 11 April, 2013 20:26
I love both prawns and shrimps.thnxz for the article I really appreciate.
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YASIN 3 May, 2013 04:30
please can u explain in easy and simple English !I mean .... less scientifically . by the way I found it to be very informative and helpful . Thanks to the Author .
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deepak dixit 11 June, 2013 18:41
thanks 4 knowledge
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Alluri 15 August, 2013 04:24
An informative article. Till now I was under the impression that shrimp is a smaller version of prawn! Thanks for educating me
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Hassan dayib 2 November, 2013 14:59
Hope this will help me,coz im seafood supplier.
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Taylor 13 December, 2013 18:16
I love the explantion,hope I can find out more
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hippo 9 January, 2014 01:34
Shrimp vs Prawn - Some Major Differences Generally, Shrimp are smaller than Prawn, but in some cases prawn can be small and shrimp can be big. Shrimp have claws only on two pairs of legs. While Prawn have claws on three pairs of their legs. Shrimp’s legs are shorter than Prawn’s legs. Prawn belong to the Dendrobranchiata and Shrimp belong to the Pleocyemata suborder of the Crustacean family. Prawns have lamellar gills while Shrimp have branching gills. Shrimp's front pincers are bigger while Prawns have bigger second pincers. Prawn is semi-transparent, we can see its internal organs through the skin. But Shrimp are usually pigmented. Prawn lay their eggs while Shrimp carry their eggs during the entire breeding season. Prawn’s body is segmented. Shrimp's body is comparatively flatter. Prawns have claws on three pairs of their legs, while Shrimp have claws on three pairs of their legs. Shrimp is rich in vitamin D while Prawn is a rich in vitamin E. Shrimp are most often seen in the United States or Latin Anerican countries. While Prawns are usually common in Asia. Prawns have a stronger and more aromatic flavor and smell than Shrimp. Shrimps are typically harvested from salt water and Prawn from fresh water. source : http://prawnvsshrimp.com
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amie 10 February, 2014 21:14
thank you.i just started my small shrimp business here in the phils
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Denis McElvaine 13 April, 2014 06:42
Shrimp has always been a description of things small and no Australian would confuse shrimp with prawn (either "king" or "banana". The size is the difference.
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Monica Seqeira 20 April, 2014 04:01
Thank you for the clear explanation given. I have just begun a small business from home to make semi dry prawn-chutney. My friend Santosh said that I was using shrimps and not prawns in the chutney. Your article has made the difference clear. Now I will print the word shrimps on the label of the packet. Thank You.
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